“The Caste System" World History: Ancient and Medieval Eras. ABC-CLIO, 2015.
Hinduism, India's main religion, is one of the most ancient faiths in the world. It arose as a complex tradition of beliefs and practices by around 1500 BCE. Over time, Hinduism evolved to include a social class order known as the caste system, a pantheon of many gods and goddesses, a variety of sects and ritual practices, and an epic religious literature.
The Caste System
"Caste" is the term used to describe the complex system of social divisions that pervades life in India. Caste is an ancient hereditary system that developed alongside and became intertwined with Hinduism. Caste determines whom a person can marry, specifies what kind of work he can do, and even controls what he can eat or touch. Since the great majority of Indians are Hindu, the caste system has played an enormous role in the history of India, and it continues to exert tremendous influence on modern Indian culture and politics. ...
All Hindus are divided among four varna and a fifth group, known as the untouchables. The four varnas are: the Brahmins, the traditional priest class; the Kshatriya, the warrior class; the Vaishya, the workers; and the Sudra, whose role is to serve the three higher classes. Below the Sudra are the untouchables, who are supposedly unclean from birth and are therefore assigned jobs that would "pollute" the higher classes. These include working with dead animals or cleaning sewage.
Each of the varnas are divided into hundreds or thousands of jati, literally meaning "birth." The jati are kinship groups with hereditary roles and professions within society. Hindus will traditionally marry only within their own jati. …
The untouchables are thought to have been added to the system as newly conquered tribal groups were added to Hindu society at the lowest rungs. Another explanation is that they developed in response to the religious needs of the higher castes as Hindu religious practices became more restrictive. Strict religious interpretation dictates that members of the
higher castes avoid contact with many aspects of daily life, like dead animals, human waste, or menstrual blood. The untouchable caste may have been created out of the Sudra caste in order to provide workers who could take care of these "polluting" aspects of life. At some point, this concept of ritual pollution extended to the workers themselves, so they were literally "untouchable." Strict Brahmins, for example, will avoid touching anything that has come in contact with a member of the Chamar jati, the untouchable group responsible for dealing with dead animals.
The caste system in India is inextricably linked to the beliefs of Hindu religion. One of the tenets of Hinduism is reincarnation—the belief in the rebirth of a person's soul into another life form after death. The life a person is reincarnated into is determined by his or her karma; a person with good karma may be reborn as a higher caste human, while a person with bad karma might be reborn as a lower caste human. Hinduism teaches that since a person's fate is determined by his past life, his fate is justified. A good Hindu, therefore, accepts his position in life; by accepting his position willingly, he can improve his karma and thereby hope for a better incarnation in the next life.
The social implication of this belief system has been a remarkable stability—or rigidity—in Indian culture. Since being a good Hindu means accepting one's position in life, Hindus have been reluctant to challenge restrictions imposed on them by the caste system. The system has kept a large part of the Indian population in a condition of servitude, since the Sudras and Untouchables have been reluctant to challenge their positions. The higher castes have not questioned the system because they benefit from it and because, according to their beliefs, the lower castes deserve their status because of actions in past lives.
Challenges to the caste system in India have primarily come from the influence of non-Hindu faiths. Islam, Christianity, and Jainism all espouse a more egalitarian message that runs counter to caste practices. Of those faiths, Islam has been the most significant, as it has held a large number of adherents in India for well over a thousand years. Some lower-caste Indians have elevated their social status by converting to these non-Hindu faiths, although this has generally meant separation from their traditional family groups. The majority of Indians have remained within the Hindu faith, and the caste system has continued to exert a profound influence on their lives.
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